A Travellerspoint blog

The Mortal Coil

Unlike many young visitors to India, I never had any intention to ‘find myself’ here or to waft about in a kaftan smoking dubious organic material. You are highly unlikely to find me cleansing my chakras or whatever in an ashram; that’s just not my bag. But even with my staunch atheism, it’s very difficult not to be affect by the spirituality that permeates every aspect of life here.
One of the things that has most struck me is the attitude towards death. Maybe it comes from having a faith, maybe it comes from being a developing country where mortality is very much present (having never witnessed anything more than your average roadkill, since being here I’ve seen 2 dead cows, countless dogs, three cremations and three actual human corpses, as well as two unpleasant encounters with electricity myself), but the taboo that surrounds death at home just isn’t present here. It’s just another part of life, and all that really counts for anything is the present moment. Nothing really sums that up better than the fact that the Hindi words for ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ are the same.
A month or so ago I made a post about how many people hang around the streets doing nothing; it’s time for me to balance that out a bit. The people who I’ve met in the various projects I’ve been involved with have all had an incredible optimism for the future, which I think is actually rooted in this belief in the present. Because the fear of oblivion that stalks ‘the First World’ isn’t so present, there isn’t the mad scramble to leave one’s mark and claim glory, but rather the focus is on actually doing something that matters. I’ve been seriously impressed by the number of perfectly ordinary people who’ve decided to start a school or fight governmental corruption or take on an international corporation, and just got on with it. And believe it or not, it works! It really is inspiring to see both the power of the individual and the strength of the co\mmunity in action. That’s not to say that it’s plain sailing all the way, of course there are issues with knowing how to play the system (and a corrupt one at that), but nevertheless, the increasingly pessimistic ‘West’ could do with taking a few leaves from the Indian book of optimism.

Posted by PhilippaW 04:03 Archived in India Tagged children culture india volunteering activities udaipur exchange classes wwoofing Comments (0)

Coca Cola Campaign

I don’t like Coke. First of all, it doesn’t actually taste like anything else on this planet, which makes me just a little suspicious. Plus it makes your more thirsty than you were before, which to me is exactly the opposite of why I have a drink. Then there are the terrible things it does to your body (http://www.trueactivist.com/what-happens-to-our-body-after-drinking-coca-cola/). Nothing that started out life containing cocaine can be good for you, in my book.
But that’s just for starters. Drinking Coke has an international impact that people are gradually getting increasingly aware of, but awareness is still low. Lok Samiti, one of the organisations I’ve been working with out here in India, has been leading the Quit India campaign against Coca Cola for some time, focusing principally on the removal of the Varanasi plant. These ordinary people (farmers, housewives, shopkeepers etc.) have faced terrible police violence and prison sentences as well as undergoing hunger strikes in a desperate attempt to save their water supply. Since the arrival of the Coke plant in 2000, the water level in the surrounding areas has dropped dramatically, to the point that many wells are out of action for much of the year. Seriously, I’ve seen the graphs; if they were ski runs, they’d be beyond black. Of course, Coke have spouted all the usual ‘local jobs’ tripe, but at the end of the day, buffalo don’t drink fizzy drinks. There are a couple of great films that have been made that can show you in a much more powerful way than I can write, and I recommend you check them out: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/10489/Holy-Water

And that’s just what’s going on here; there’s a ton of other issues ranging from the dodgy to the deadly. Trying to bribe US Congress to cut donations to WHO because it makes Coke look bad, death squads in Columbia (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/1448962.stm), using child labour in Pakistan, racism in plants in the US... the list goes on. At my own uni, there was an attempt to ban Coke from the Union, which ultimately failed as it was necessary for financial stability – is it right that one corporation should be so central to what ought to be an independent, democratic body? I think not. Feel free to research this stuff in your own time, but just remember, next time you ‘share a Coke with friends’, be aware of exactly what it is that you are sharing.

Posted by PhilippaW 23:24 Archived in India Tagged children culture india volunteering activities udaipur exchange classes wwoofing Comments (0)

Feeeeeeeeed me!

You might be wondering why I, amateur gourmande that I am, haven’t said anything yet about food. Well believe you me, it’s not for lack of trying, but every time I attempt to, words literally fail me. How can you, sat reading this at your computer, possibly understand just how good kachouris are, or how weirdly refreshing it is to feel a pani puri explode in your mouth, or the phenomenal sweet creaminess of lassi handmade from thick milk straight from the cow? I could give describing it a good go, but to be honest I think that would just be unfair on you. Suffice it to say that everything is just amazing (except one strange white vegetable that looks a lot like pear but is horribly bitter; I don’t like that. And the bread – that’s just awful. Sugary and pumped with preservatives). But I feel that I ought to say something on the subject, so here we go.
The vast majority of people I’ve been living with have been vegetarian, so I’ve mostly been off meat for six weeks. And, now this is something I’d never thought I’d say, I actually prefer it that way. I’ve really enjoyed being handed bowlfuls of mysterious vegetables that I’ve never seen before; I’ve given up asking what they are, because the answer doesn’t actually elucidate anything. The humble pulse has totally won me over, and I’ll be stocking up on dahl recipes before I go home. I have had meat, but it’s always been goat or mutton and has been incredibly fatty, something I’d generally rather not eat more than once a week. The chickens that I’ve seen outside the butchers’ don’t exactly look free-range, either. So I think that given the choice, I’m going to stick with vegetarianism. Besides, there’s paneer to add into the equation – not great on its own, but delicious when cooked up in a thick sauce with a fresh roti.
Then there’s a whole universe of street food. Everywhere you go, the streets are filled with stalls selling various different goodies; being out at the festivals is the most tormenting experience as I just want to stuff my face with everything going. Everybody seems to have their own favourite stall, but how you work out just which one that is out of the multitudes on offer, I have no idea. Same goes for chai wallahs; with everyone having their own individual take on that famous Indian beverage (which is what you’ll be getting chez moi from now on, by the way), you need to navigate the myriads of interpretations on offer. I personally favour a strong cardamom presence, but that’s just me.
And sweets... Indian sweets are just a whole different species. My adventures in Laddu-land has not been very extensive yet, but one day soon I’m going to buy myself a whole box of sticky treats and undertake a very serious, thorough investigation. What I can tell you is that sweet items seem to come under one of two main categories: quite delicately flavoured pulse-flour based delicacies, and seriously syrupy, oily pastries that have your teeth running for the hills. Either way, you can guarantee that they’ll be plentiful at all special occasions, from birthday parties to festivals, and even feature in religious ceremonies.
A quick note on mealtimes (sorry, I know this is a long post). Indians eat really late, and it’s something that my body has taken a long time to adapt to. Breakfast is at about 9, mostly something savoury (leftovers from the night before, maybe) and often a dairy dish such as homemade yoghurt or kir, which is a sort of rice pudding with dried fruit and nuts. Lunch is usually 2 or 3ish and evening meal not until 9 or even 10. Every meal will come with rice and/ or roti, and often with a potato (aloo) dish. And it’s a pretty hefty portion... people struggle to understand that I a) only eat one carbohydrate with a meal and b) don’t need a serving the size of my head. Generally people go straight to bed after dinner, having got up at dawn to start the daily house cleaning ritual.

The humble Friday night takeaway will never be the same again.

Posted by PhilippaW 22:26 Archived in India Tagged children culture india volunteering activities udaipur exchange classes wwoofing Comments (0)

Mind your Manners

I had thought that my friends and I were as pretty cosmopolitan bunch - we've lived across the world, travelled a lot and come from various different backgrounds. And I guess we are, in our own very European ('Western'? I'm never sure what the best way to phrase that is) way, but really we come from a pretty closed milieu. It’s only during the last 5 weeks, while I’ve been living with rural Indian communities, that I’ve realised just how much it is possible for attitudes to differ, particularly regarding manners.
It took me a good two weeks to reset my rude-ometer, preset to its customary British levels of politeness, and not be affronted every time somebody (often perfect strangers) grabbed at my possessions or waltzed into ‘my’ room to stretch out on ‘my’ bed. I’ve talked about privacy and personal space before, but I’m just going to reiterate for you: there isn’t any. Even when I’ve had the luxury of locking the door, if somebody wants to get in then they’d just bash away until I opened it. I learned pretty quickly that it was less hassle to leave it wide open.
Then there’s the volume level. I often totally failed to realise that people were talking to me, even in English, because it sounded like they were conversing with somebody three rooms away rather than somebody right in front of them. Which brings me back round to language again. I know I bang on a lot about understanding the local language as being the key to understanding a culture, but it’s absolutely 100% true. As a Brit, with our very particular way of dressing requests up in layer upon layer of niceties, it’s genuinely a shock to be told ‘Get out of the car’ or ‘Move that bag’. Until you can work out what locals are saying to each other, you just won’t realise that here there is none of the ‘Would you mind...?’s or ‘May I...?’s. Imperatives are the order of the day (pun 1000% intended).

But the spitting. Oh, the spitting. Now this I really struggle with. That now-familiar sound of ‘hkhaarrkharrrraarghhhh-phut-splat’ (pronounced as written, ish) is just delightful to my ears, and even more so to my eyes. (This is India is my mantra. This is India.) In fact I did a class on manners and etiquette with my more advanced group and drew up a guide for Indians visiting the UK – one suggestion was ‘Don’t spit in front of you, do spit to the side.’ Nice try, kid, but no cigar this time. And there’s a lot of stuff I could go on about, but I’m not going to because I don’t want you to get the impression that all this is a problem. Although it all takes a lot of getting used to, that is precisely the point. It is up to me (or any foreigner visiting) to make the effort to get used to it all and to suppress the instinctive look of disgust or offence, because here, quite simply, none of this is disgusting or offensive.

Posted by PhilippaW 23:25 Archived in India Tagged children culture india volunteering activities udaipur exchange classes wwoofing Comments (0)

All Natural

I’m going to let you into a few secrets, just between friends. You may find what I am about to say disgusting, or even shocking. If you do, I suggest you reconsider any plans you had made to live in a developing country, where this is all rather normal.
Firstly, I’ve sort of given up washing my hair. While the women here spend ages brushing, oiling and plaiting their extensive tresses, I quite simply cannot be bothered. The combination of dust, pollution and humidity means that my once-luscious locks look the same whether I washed them an hour or a week ago, i.e. not dissimilar to a low-grade scarecrow. Every time I shake my head to dislodge a fly, I get a free shower of grey dust (which then lodges itself in my pores, kindly giving me the skin of a teenager again). The first thing I plan to do once I’m back in the UK is treat myself to the world’s deepest condition.
Secondly, I’ve stopped wearing deodorant. Admittedly, that is a bit icky, but I don’t think anyone can tell, provided I don’t wave my arms about. In my defence, I’ve read in a lot of places that mosquitoes are attracted to synthetic beauty products, so it’s a question of the health of my liver! And anyway, I’m going to play the life experience card, and say if I can’t do it when I’m living somewhere where I have to walk through the cowshed to get to the shower, then when can I?

And here’s the big one…. I have renounced toilet paper. WHAT?!?! I hear you cry in consternation. Well, to be honest, I don’t have a choice. Nobody else uses it and you can’t buy it even in the big supermarkets. The plumbing system can’t cope with it and there are no bins in the bathrooms (Note: there are no bins anywhere. I have enough mental anguish dropping biodegradable rubbish in the street, let alone lobbing used bog roll around.) I’ll be honest, it took me a while to work out what the alternative was, until I noticed that a recurring feature of all bathrooms/ squat loos is a small plastic jug. That’s right, my friends, you have to sort of rinse. With your hands. And then waft about a bit until you’re dry enough to continue on your merry way. Now that does take some getting used to, but as they say: When in Rome!

Posted by PhilippaW 22:24 Archived in India Tagged children culture india volunteering activities udaipur exchange classes wwoofing Comments (0)

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